At the very end of Red Dead Redemption 2, former outlaw John Marston buys a downtrodden ranch and sets about turning the scrub into a home with a little help from Charles and Uncle. Set in the lawless American West, players spend the majority of Red Dead Redemption 2 fighting for their lives, but this epilogue is a heart-warming display of friendship and unity that suggests that maybe all the struggle was worth it after all?
Adding to the warmth is the aptly titled The Housebuilding Song. A faithful, country song with plenty of heart (“No matter what the weather, we’re together,”) it quickly became a fan favourite despite the soundtrack also including music from Queens of The Stone Age’s Josh Homme, Willie Nelson and rapper Nas.
Since The Housebuilding Song first appeared on Spotify last October, it’s been streamed well over a million times while the Youtube video has over 10 million views. There’s even been a vinyl release with four other tracks from the artists.
David Ferguson, the man behind the song, is glad it’s available outside of the game. “I tried to play Red Dead Redemption 2 and it’s fun, but within the first five minutes, I lost all my weapons and was wanted by everyone. I don’t know how to restart it either, so I’ll never get to that part,” he laughs, zooming from his studio in Nashville. Apparently, a kid who works at a local store told him how the story ends.
By his own admission, Ferguson isn’t a gamer. He is somewhat of a musical legend though, having worked extensively alongside Johnny Cash and Rick Rubin since 1987. So how on earth did the engineer for one of America’s greatest country singers wind up on the soundtrack to the most expensive game in history? Well, like Marston building his house, he did it all with a little help from his friends.
After Cash passed in 2003, Ferguson and Rubin oversaw the completion of American V: A Hundred Highways. Guitarist Matt Sweeney came in, played guitar on a few tracks and instantly hit it off with Ferguson.
Their birthdays were on the same day, they produced Jake Bugg’s 2017 album Hearts That Strain together and whenever Sweeney made the journey from his home in New York to Nashville, they’d end up throwing these big parties. One day Sweeney was talking to the people behind Red Dead Redemption 2 who mentioned they were working on a Western and wanted some organic music. Of course the first person he thought of was David Ferguson.
Producer Daniel Lanois and Rockstar’s Music Supervisor Ivan Pavlovich flew down to Nashville with a handful of unfinished segments from the game and Sweeney and Ferguson set about creating music to soundtrack them. According to Ferguson, it was pretty free-flowing. With the actual game still being built, “I think they were still finding their way,” but that organic nature just added to the feel of the game.
This relationship would last a couple of years with Ferguson and Sweeney getting a call every few months to score various new scenes. “It was all a bit of a blur but one of the last bits we did was the part where you go to a club and can pick up and play the instruments.”
“The team at Rockstar definitely knew how they wanted it to feel. For each scene they wanted it to sound romantic, bombastic, intense, or satisfactory. Some scenes they wanted to sound a little silly, others more serious. There was a lot of back and forth and Rockstar was really involved. The soundtrack was very important to them. The music budget was a lot bigger for this game than the original and they really took their time with the music to make sure it was right. We were just a small part of the whole thing. We became really good friends with those guys though.”
“A chunk of the game is set in the New Orleans’ inspired town of Saint Denis and one of the hardest parts was staying away from modern blues licks. You’re in New Orleans so of course you want to put the blues in but that came a long time after this late 1800’s period. We wanted it to be authentic. The other thing was trying to record it in a way that didn’t sound terribly professional. We wanted it to feel a little loose.”
They also had to struggle with making sure the music could be looped indefinitely, (“you have to trick the ear to make it sound like it’s a longer piece of music than it is,”) and that it worked with whatever scene came next. “Limiting yourself like that is a major headache,” admits Ferguson.
He “didn’t have a clue” how big Red Dead Redemption 2 would become when he signed up. He went to the New York offices a few times and people kept telling him it would be huge. “I’m just one small spoke in a huge wheel but it feels good to be a part of something like this.”
The Housebuilding Song came from similarly humble origins. “They said they needed a song where old friends are working together, building a house. It’s going to be a real moment. So I wrote that little ditty. I sent it to Rockstar and they scratched their heads over it for a long time. I thought they weren’t going to use it but they wound up going back to it. It’s not a piece of Mozart music, it’s corny but apparently it works perfectly.“
Ferguson doesn’t know why that song has connected like it has. “In the kindest way, people are odd,” he laughs. “I never would have thought that someone would play a game and hear something I’d written but I’m thankful. Gaming is the biggest form of entertainment there is. You just never know who it’s going to reach.”
“It’s friendly,” he offers as a potential reason for its success. “Hopefully people get something out of it. I don’t do anything to better society, I don’t think. I’m not a doctor, I’m not a scientist, but if someone gets a smile out of a song I’ve made, that’s good.”
For people of a certain age, being on the soundtrack to Red Dead Redemption 2 is a bigger claim to fame than working with Johnny Cash. “Gamers, they’re a different breed of people. It’s neat to be a part of their world though.” He hopes The Housebuilding Song acts as a gateway to other country music.
The more cynical of you might assume that Ferguson’s upcoming debut album Nashville No More, out September 3, is nothing more than a cash grab with the artist looking to take advantage of his newfound audience. You’d be wrong though. The record is several years in the making, with Ferguson recording quick demos and covers inbetween jobs at his studio The Butcher Shop. He moved into a new studio just before the pandemic hit and with lots of new toys to play with but no one to play with, he completed eleven tracks as a means of breaking in his new studio.
He sent the songs to Sweeney to see what he thought (“one of the hardest things in the world is listening to yourself. It sucks,”) and he almost immediately sent it over to Fat Possum Records. A record deal quickly followed, with Ferguson promising to be “the easiest artist you’ve ever worked with.”
Rather than a collection of country songs that sound like The Housebuilding Song, Nashville No More is a mix of pop, rock power ballads, folk-country tracks and pretty songs. “I hope there’s something on there for everybody. There should be, I tried to make it like that.”
Still, that friendly spirit that made ‘The Housebuilding Song’ so endearing can be felt across the record. Even the title is a comment on the fact that “Nashville is not what it used to be. There used to be a small community of musicians, record producers and artists who all worked together but I don’t know if that’s still going on. Everything is very corporate which is a bit of a bummer.” He hopes this record recreates that ragtag communal feeling of old. “I like for things to sound good, sweet and be able to breathe. I don’t want every note to sound perfect because it’s not real.”
Ferguson believes that “you need to have a tremendous ego to be a performer. Anyone who would assume that somebody else would want to hear you sing must have a pretty good ego, especially if you’re making a record by yourself. I hope my album doesn’t sound pretentious though.”
As for who the album is for, “I don’t really know what my audience is anymore. I’ll leave that to the record label but thanks to them, to the success of Red Dead Redemption 2, a guy like me has a chance. I’m not expecting superstardom or anything like that, you don’t take a nearly-60-year-old fat guy and turn him into Justin Bieber, but there’s a chance people will hear my music and that’s great. That’s all I’ve ever wanted.”
David Ferguson’s solo album ‘Nashville No More’ is out today